Historic Opportunity

Will Tucsonans seize the opportunity to breathe new life into downtown?

BILL DOELLE STANDS in the vacant fields of Rio Nuevo South, the 62-acre tract of city-owned land just west of downtown. Weedy grass blows gently around his feet, bits of cardboard lie among glistening glass shards in the dirt.

He doesn't seem to notice this 20th-century wreckage, no more than he takes in the cars careening by on the interstate or the hulking prefab bus barn that's the only building left here. Doelle is an archaeologist and when he looks around, he sees 3,000 years of history.

Over here, he says, behind protective chain link, is a dense concentration of pit houses from about 500 B.C., buried just below the earth's dusty surface. Underneath that landfill, he adds, pointing, was a settlement of Hohokams, who lived here from about 700 to 1200 A.D. And here, he says, climbing up a slight incline, was the famed Convento, the two-story adobe building constructed for Spanish friars in the late 18th century. Farther off, on the other side of Mission Road, he gestures to the remains of Warner's Mill, built by an Anglo in the latter 19th century.

"I like the idea of looking at it (this place) over the long term -- seeing the layering of history," he says in his quiet voice. "There are stratified deposits here. It's a layer cake effect."

Doelle gently taps some rocks embedded in the ground. They don't look like much, just a series of gray stones planted here and there in a haphazard line among the weeds. But they're what's left of the footings of the adobe wall that once circled the Spanish mission complex.

"The wall used to be more continuous," he notes. "There's not much left."

Indeed. Tucson has not been kind to its birthplace. People have lived for millennia along the Santa Cruz at Chuk-son, a place name variously translated as "black bottom basin" or "well-watered place." Attracted by springs, river water and fertile land for their corn, an unnamed archaic group of Native Americans arrived as early as 1200 B.C. They were succeeded by the Hohokam, the Pimas, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Anglos, some Apaches, and the Chinese gardeners who raised fruits and vegetables on the riverbanks as late as the 1930s. Today's Barrio Sin Nombre dwellers, living in the slice of land to the west of the pit houses, are only the latest in an unbroken line of human residents.

In short, a world-class archaeological site, reflecting at least 3,000 years of human history, lies between the river and A Mountain.

"It is the key site in Tucson," says Linda Mayro, archaeologist for Pima County. "It's the birthplace of Tucson; it represents the community's heritage."

Tucsonans seem to have gone out of their way to destroy it. Brickmakers who operated here from the 1890s until 1967 dug into the fine clay soil -- undoubtedly disturbing the dust of ancient graves -- and converted it into the bricks that built the University of Arizona and bungalows all over West University. Anglo picnickers flocked to the abandoned Convento in the late 19th century, and photographs record its rapid deterioration in the 20th. In the 1950s, the city began dumping its trash here.

"The Hohokam settlement is under a landfill. The sensitivity to planning these things wasn't there in the '50s," says Doelle, master of understatement.

DOELLE, MAYRO AND other passionate lovers of the place are hoping all that will change, and soon. The November 2 ballot offers Tucson citizens a chance to use sales tax money to help pay for a restoration of the city's birthplace, converting it into the long-sought Mission San Agustín del Tucson Cultural Park, complete with restoration and interpretation of all its important treasures. Proposition 400 also would permit the same pot of public funds to be used as seed money for a host of other ambitious projects at Rio Nuevo and across the river in downtown proper.

The plan calls for hanging on to about $60 million in state retail taxes over 10 years, to be matched by a contribution from the city's own retail taxes, and about $10 million from the city's general fund over the 10 years. The expectation of all this money coming in the future would allow a governing board to take out bonds to get construction started. City Manager Luis Gutierrez estimates that about $80 million would go to the projects, and $40 million to debt service. The San Agustín Park alone would get an estimated $9.5 million; another $2.1 million would go toward archaeological investigation of the whole Rio Nuevo site. It's unlikely that the $9.5 million would be enough to pay for all that the cultural park requires, but supporters anticipate that it could help trigger grants and other outside funds.

A museum complex, likely including a new Arizona Historical Society Museum and a Flandrau Planetarium metamorphosed into a Universe of Discovery Museum, and possibly a Museum of the American West, would go in just north of the historic park. The museums, allotted about $22 million by the city's calculations, would have to raise much of their own construction budgets, in approximately a two-to one match, doubling on their own what the city doles out. A family-oriented multicultural and environmental center, replanted with the cottonwoods and other historic species that once thrived here, would be to its south; estimated price tag: $700,000.

"Our concept," says assistant city manager John Updike, "is the continuum of time. Visitors would start in the cultural park, representing the Hohokam, go on through the (18th century) Mission Gardens, then to the Arizona Historical Society, then to science and the future of Tucson."

New housing, to be built by a private developer, would buffer the museums from the existing Menlo Park neighborhood, with about $2 million in Rio Nuevo money kicking in for public improvements. A Sonoran Sea Aquarium, containing only the marine life of the Sea of Cortez, and a long-planned visitors' center would go in on the other side of the river, along with public facilities designed to attract a hotel investor. The Aquarium would get about $10 million after fulfilling the same two-for-one fundraising requirements; the visitor's center, $2.5 million; the hotel accouterments, such as a parking garage and meeting rooms, $8 million.

The Presidio, Tucson's other piece of sacred ground, would be re-created at Washington and Alameda, with the help of $3 million if TIF dollars. Existing museums such as the Tucson Museum of Art, the Children's Museum and El Cento Cultural would share about $2 million, while the soon-to-restored Fox Theatre would step up to the money plate as well. Assorted pedestrian amenities, such as a pedestrian bridge and bicycle lanes, as well as a new car bridge and a shuttle bus or trolley, would help knit up the great divide of riverbed and freeway that separates downtown from its birthplace. The river itself might even get some water back.

But the Mission San Agustín del Tucson Cultural Park is the top priority on this dizzying list. Envisioned as long ago as 1976, according to Updike, San Agustín would showcase the 3,000 years of what Doelle calls layer-cake history. The mission complex, which served as a visita, or outpost, to the much larger San Xavier, would be reconstructed, complete with Convento, chapel and granary, along with the 19th century Warner's Mill and Carrillo House. The Mission Gardens, pending their purchase from a private owner, might showcase early Native American agriculture. The pit houses, Pima village and vestiges of other cultural eras would be interpreted in a yet-to-be-determined way.

"The park is the lodestar of the whole (Rio Nuevo) thing," says City Councilman Steve Leal, who vowed to get the Convento restored after he heard a scholarly presentation on the mission way back in 1985. "This is going to be a world-class tourist attraction.... It's a stunning win-win thing for the people of Tucson."

The bonus, he believes, is that visitors and locals attracted by the park and its adjoining museums would help revitalize a moribund downtown. Saint Augustine, Florida, he says, draws some two million visitors a year eager to learn of America's early history.

Marty McCune, the city's historic program administrator, heads the Tucson Origins Task Force, a group of archaeologists, historians, hydrologists and neighborhood residents charged with planning for the park as well as the Presidio restoration. Doelle serves as consulting architect to the panel.

"We have an incredible story to tell about Tucson, from prehistoric times to the 20th century," agrees McCune. "We're trying to find a way to tell that story."

WHETHER THIS STORY gets to be told is up to the voters. There's hardly a politician in town willing to come out as anti-Convento or even anti-downtown, but there are plenty of people who criticize either the Rio Nuevo money scheme or the convoluted process that brought the city to this point.

In typical Tucson fashion, Rio Nuevo has weathered a political firestorm, one almost as severe as the long-ago brickyard assault on its sainted clays. Pummeled by neighborhood complaints, a blow-up in Phoenix, and charges of conflict of interest, gerrymandering and government secrecy, the sacred land narrowly avoided both a mall scheme planned by an out-of-state developer and a fake Mexican village concocted by local Robert Shelton.

The two major candidates for mayor both support Proposition 400, after initially opposing it.

"I didn't in the primary support it," says Democrat Molly McKasson. "There was not enough information at all. There's still not enough information but I'm supporting it. There really are opportunities here but the way we're carrying it out needs improvement. ...I'd want to be extremely aggressive to see that the process is driven by the community and elected officials, not city staff."

Republican Bob Walkup agrees there were too many unknowns earlier. Now he sees the project as a way to revitalize downtown.

"I think Rio Nuevo is the right start," he says."The wonderful part of Rio Nuevo is the cultural, historical, educational part. That will assist commercial. That will assist investment."

Like McKasson, Walksup says that as mayor he'd keep a close eye on the project so that assorted community and business interests are fairly represented. Walkup's wife, Beth Walkup, resigned last week as director of the Children's Museum, a potential TIF beneficiary. "She did not want this election to jeopardize the value of the Children's Museum to the community," he says.

Jan Lesher, a public relations professional who ran Betsy Bolding's mayoral primary campaign, has done some informal polling of voters in her work for Go Tucson, a private group that hired her to advocate for the Rio Nuevo project.

"Our message is, 'We've got one chance at this....' It's really a wonderful opportunity for a private/public partnership," Lesher says. Her surveys reveal that of the 50 percent of voters who know anything at all about Rio Nuevo, about 30 percent support it. Some voters are confused and dismayed, telling her, "I can handle a decision I don't like but I can't handle a process I don't like."

Part of the confusion goes back to the complicated state law that would allow Rio Nuevo to dip into Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, provided voters agree. Originally crafted to help pay for stadiums and other projects in Maricopa County, the TIF law allows a local community to hang onto some of the sales tax money that usually gets shipped up the road to the state capital. Tucson was forced onto a fast track for TIF in April, when the Legislature, after some strident lobbying out of the Old Pueblo, agreed to grandfather Tucson into the deal. (There is no shortage of locals who claim credit for helping nab the TIF for Tucson, from Paul Lindsey, who heads the group of museums who stand to benefit from it, and Carol Carpenter, formerly of the Tucson Downtown Alliance, to Republican City Councilman Fred Ronstadt and local state legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Kathleen Dunbar (R-District 13) and Rep. Andy Nichols (D- District 13)).

TIF beneficence comes with plenty of restrictions. Stipulating that this is a one-time deal, the legislators required Tucson to place the measure on the ballot this November. That deadline speeded up the what had been the desultory pace of Rio Nuevo planning to a sudden gallop. The money has to be spent in a designated "multipurpose funding district," not added to the city's general fund. Within the district there must be at least $200 million worth of publicly held property, including a sports venue, which Tucson easily manages in the district city manager Gutierrez concocted (more on that later). The special TIF mechanism retires after 10 years.

Making things even more complicated, the legislators require a city that wants TIF money to sign on at least one partner city, which basically gets a chunk of cash for its trouble. Tucson has landed South Tucson and Sahuarita as partners, but their participation is also subject to their voters' consent. Each of the three municipalities has already appointed two members to a district authority board; Tucson's two, who get weighted voting powers, are architect Corky Poster and Ruben Suarez, a Menlo Park resident and former city budget director.

Voters worry about a tax hike, as they always do when city officials talk new buildings. City staffers are not permitted to lobby for this or any bill, but an informational brochure the city published tries to ward off taxpayer fears. The TIF plan calls for no sales tax increase, the brochure explains, and it has nothing at all to do with property taxes.

"Homeowners and business owners in the district (shouldn't be worried)," says the city's Updike. "TIF means nothing to the consumer or the business owner. If you're a business owner in the district, you will not know the difference."

Here's how TIF would work. The sales tax in Tucson now stands at 7 percent. The state pockets 5 percent of that, the city 2 percent. Let's say a $100 coat, a nice fuzzy wool model for winter, flies off the rack in the Old Pueblo; the new owner has to pay a $7 tax. The state takes home $5, the city keeps $2. Under TIF, taxes on a coat sold in the designated district would be divided up more to Tucson's advantage. On that same $100 coat, the state would only keep $2.50 and fork over the other $2.50 to Rio Nuevo. The city would give Rio Nuevo the remaining $2 of the tax, and to complete its match would rummage in its general fund for another 50 cents to throw in the pot. New coat owner, sales clerk and business owner would be happily oblivious to all this accounting.

Sales taxes already being raised in the district don't count. So TIF only kicks in if somebody sells more coats in the district than they used to. If a store sold a hundred coats last year, and 110 coats in the first year of the 10-year TIF period, only the last 10 coats would generate money for Rio Nuevo. Tax monies from the first 100 coats would go mostly to Phoenix, as per usual.

Rep. Andy Nichols, who pushed for TIF in the Legislature, doesn't see why anyone would turn the money down. "We've given Tucson a one-time opportunity. Why wouldn't we take it?"

BEFORE TIF CAME along, Tucson had been leisurely studying Rio Nuevo South in neighborhood meetings and in regular sessions of a Santa Cruz River Commission. A request for proposals generated only three responses: from Daystar, a California developer; Bob Shelton, the founder of Old Tucson who's been pitching a Colonial Tucson park for the site for years, and Broadstone, another local group.

The Daystar project included the contingent of four museums, in a nod to the land's history, but it also offered up a multi-screen movie theatre, hotels, an amphitheater and hotels. Most alarming of all was its proposal to plop some 768,000 square feet of store within spitting distance of the archaeological treasures.

At a stormy city council meeting June 28, Daystar developer Yehuda Netanel defensively told the hostile council members that his retail stores were only "one-third the size of Tucson Mall."

Neighborhood groups were furious.

"Everything we worked on got scuttled," remembers Bob Rodriguez, vice president of Menlo Park Neighborhood Association. "Daystar came in with a 180-degree turn. It wasn't at all what we wanted."

Menlo Park, under President Lillian Lopez-Grant, had earlier supported Shelton's Colonial Tucson, believing it would bring in much-needed jobs. It was to be a sort of theme park about local cultures, dressed up with retail and restaurants, a hotel and an indoor performance center. (The Broadstone proposal was off again, on again, though its housing suggestion remains in the current plan.)

The Santa Cruz River Alliance, a group that banded together to restore water to the once-flowing Santa Cruz, delivered a sharp critique of both the Daystar and Shelton plans.

"Neither proposal respects the rich cultural heritage of the area around Rio Nuevo South, nor its archaeological and rural legacy," Alliance members Diana Hadley and Rob Kulakofsky wrote in an opinion piece in the Star in June. "Each proposal ignores, overwhelms or competes with the unique character and features of our city's birthplace."

Members of the Tucson Origins Task Force expressed dismay at the acres of land that would be flattened by parking lots, right next to the open-air cultural park.

"Nobody was happy with the proposals," recalls Democratic councilwoman Janet Marcus. "Daystar was too overwhelmingly commercial, the other (Shelton's) was too hokey. The third was totally vague. The neighborhood people had valid points. The environmental and cultural people all had reservations."

In late June, a divided city council ordered Gutierrez back to the drawing board.

GUTIERREZ'S STAFF DEVELOPED the new plan with such secrecy that restless Council members started getting angry about the shortage of information being made public. When it finally was presented a few weeks later, it took most Tucsonans completely by surprise. Gone were the Daystar and Shelton proposals. Instead was a master plan whose contours will be filled in only gradually. Instead of contracting out to a single developer, it calls for a series of smaller proposals to be submitted by separate groups and developers to the governing board, which would make recommendations to mayor and council for approval. Instead of potentially threatening the viability of downtown, the new plan leaps from the west bank of the river to the east, doling out benefits in pockets around downtown. Most surprising of all were the boundaries drawn for the district: instead of overloading Rio Nuevo with stores, it lassoes in a broad commercial corridor extending for miles along Broadway.

Hammered out partly in public meetings over the summer, it came back to mayor and council September 7. The elected officials called for more detail, then endorsed the somewhat altered plan a week later.

Supporters see it as an elegant solution.

"The manager's proposal was a bit unusual but it's a way of meeting the desires of many people," Marcus says. "I thought it was extremely clever."

Critics zero in on in the way the funding district's odd outlines. Even city staffers joke about its shape, nicknaming it the keyhole. It takes in all of Rio Nuevo and embraces most of downtown, but then it snakes east in a narrow line, clear out to El Con and Park Place malls.

Gutierrez reasoned that since both malls were undergoing renovation, they were likely to generate the extra sales taxes required to finance the plan. That money would spare Rio Nuevo from the burden of undue retail. Republicans Fred Ronstadt, city councilman, and Kathleen Dunbar, state rep, say the gerrymandered district violates the spirit of TIF by hooking into existing retail.

"The TIF is set up so a municipality creates something out of nothing," Ronstadt says. "That something generates the funding. Under the city manager's plan, instead of taking nothing and building something, you take the planned development of the new regional malls."

Both Ronstadt and Dunbar favored a plan with more retail, Ronstadt going for a combination of the three proposals, Dunbar for Daystar. When Dunbar pushed her fellow legislators for TIF for Tucson, she was under the impression that Daystar was the only contender. She had been lobbied on Daystar by Carpenter, of the Tucson Downtown Alliance, and Carpenter's boss, Thom Laursen, who wore two hats at the time. Besides being co-chair of the nonprofit, Laursen was a paid lobbyist for Daystar, a dual role that enraged politicians back home in Tucson. These two lobbyists didn't explain there were two other proposals on the table. But Dunbar believes that the city also misled legislators at a meeting where only the Daystar plans were displayed on an easel.

She still thinks the Daystar project would have been more commercially viable than the currently envisioned complex, which would include about 75,000 sqaure feet in shops and retail on the west side of the river, and another 75,000 on the east.

"A vibrant project, to keep its doors open, needs commerce and retail," Dunbar reasons. "It needs retail to be the magnet to attract other businesses. This (current) project falls short."

Plus, Dunbar says, she's been put in a position to apologize to her fellow lawmakers, who take a dim view of what they see as Tucson's switcheroo on plans. Sen. George Cunningham, Democrat of Tucson, says he's aware of some "saber-rattling" among his fellows over Tucson's actions, though he disagrees that the strangely shaped district violates the flexible boundaries that he believes the law allows. And he contends that the Legislature has no business attaching a particular proposal to TIF. That's the prerogative of Tucson's voters.

"It's up to the citizens of Tucson to decide on a proposal," he argues. "Daystar put forth responsible proposal but it wasn't our job to vote on a specific proposal."

RODRIGUEZ SAYS HE expects the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association to endorse the plan.

"In the end Gutierrez did the right thing," he says, "It's what we wanted in the first place. We want museums, retail, so our people can be employed, local businesses to start up, the integrity of the neighborhood and of course, the rebuilding of our historic sites."

It seems tailor-made for the river Alliance members, who in their editorial asked for "native vegetation, cultural and historic sites, traditional architecture, museums (and) appropriate housing and retail development."

Opponent Ronstadt has a long list of objections. While others speak expansively of downtown being everybody's neighborhood, a place that should be the city's jewel in the crown, Ronstadt raises the specter of one neighborhood's taxes going to support another's projects. The TIF plan forces "people using the malls to pay for public works on the west side," he says, and diverts money "that should be used to fund an expanding community...The commercial engines for this project are 16 miles to the east."

"Ain't the way it works," Nichols replies. Without TIF in place, much of that money scoots right back up to Phoenix, not to eastside neighborhood improvements. And like many, Nichols points out that Tucson has historically suffered when it comes to the state re-distributing monies around Arizona.

Ronstadt worries too about what will happen in 10 years when the TIF funding expires. Supporters argue that economic protections are built into the law. The TIF money would help the museums pay only for construction costs. And if they can't raise their required matching funds, they don't get district funds either, and their projects go down. For their operating budgets they're on their own.

Updike, the city assistant manager, believes that the incremental nature of the construction will help keep the whole thing financially sound.

"We can gauge the economy as we go," he says. If a sudden recession suddenly drives happy consumers away from the malls, the district board can slow down the projects getting approved. "Will we have overextended ourselves? No."

Ronstadt thinks accountability has gotten short shrift. The proposition language is too vague, he says, and that the council oversight opens up the whole thing to politics and favoritism. City councilman José Ibarra thinks all that is already covered.

"The district board initiates, investigates and recommends. Ultimately it has to come back to the mayor and council," Ibarra notes. "The list gives us parameters of what we can and cannot do. The elected officials will have their say. Plus this has had enough visibility that the council will have to do what the public wants."

That's exactly right, says Rodriguez.

"We've been stepped on before," he says. "It's up to us in the neighborhood to keep a watchful eye." And a new watchdog group, the Rio Nuevo/Broadway Corridor Neighborhood Coalition, has called for a Community Advisory Review Committee to work with the district board every step of the way.

Ibarra has a worry of his own, about what will happen to Tucson's birthplace if Proposition 400 fails.

"If this goes down, no one will invest the time and money again to do what the voters turned down," he says. "It will remain that way for many years."

BILL DOELLE, THE archaeologist, stands atop A Mountain, taking in all of Rio Nuevo at once. He sees the same view of winding riverbed and fertile banks that Hohokam food gatherers and Father Kino must have gazed upon, and that the famous 19th-century photographer Carleton Watkins admired and captured in an early print. From up here the place is picturesque and peaceful, light years away from the bickering that, Doelle worries, might prevent the city from restoring its birthplace. Some of the treasures have deteriorated over the years he's been in town and he sees the TIF as possibly the last best hope for San Agustín.

Like Ibarra, he's concerned that if people don't take this chance, when the state has offered the city what's almost a gift, the restoration will never happen.

"It's not a new tax," he says wistfully, contributing his own voice to the chorus. "I've heard people say they don't trust the city. But you've got to! Make Tucson's roots more accessible to the community. I sure wish people could put aside their differences .... You've got to have a little trust to make it happen. This is a one-shot opportunity. We'll never see this again.

A Tohono O'odham "healing and purification ceremony" and a Catholic Mass will take place Saturday morning, Oct. 16, at Rio Nuevo South. The two rituals are meant to prepare the land for its proposed new uses, particularly as a historical park and as a Multicultural Family Educational Center. Meeting from 7 to 7:30 a.m., participants will walk in procession from these gathering points: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Church, 507 W. 29th St.; Santa Cruz Church, 1220 S. Sixth Ave.; Southside Presbyterian, 317 W. 23rd St.; St. Augustine Cathedral, 192 S. Stone Ave.; and St. Margaret Church, 801 N. Grande Ave. For more information call 622-6052.

About The Author

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly